FORT DRUM, New York - Four Soldiers became the first in the New York Army National Guard to earn the new Expert Soldier Badge Oct. 1, following two weeks of training and testing at Fort Drum. The four men joined another 950 Soldiers across the Army who have earned the badge.
Created in October 2019, the Expert Soldier Badge, or ESB, joins the Expert Infantry Badge and the Expert Field Medic Badge as a special skills badge.
The Expert Soldier Badge can be earned by all Soldiers who are not infantrymen, medics or Special Forces. They train and test alongside infantry and medical troops seeking their skill badges.
As of July, according to Army Training and Doctrine Command, only 19% of the 5,000 Soldiers who have sought the Expert Soldier Badge have passed the course.
Sgt. 1st Class Ryan Blount, a member of the 427th Brigade Support Battalion; Sgt. Alexander Sonneville and Spc. Nicholas Weber, both assigned to the 2nd Squadron, 101st Cavalry; and Spc. William Neumeister, assigned to the 10th MCPOD; had to complete 30 Soldier tasks, a physical fitness assessment, day/night land navigation, a timed 12-mile march and qualify as expert on their individual weapon.
The New York National Guard sent a team of Soldiers to compete for the ESB in May, according to Sgt. Maj. Matthew Stark, the 27th Infantry Brigade Combat Team operations noncommissioned officer. They did not earn the badge but passed on what they learned to the four who earned the badge Oct. 1, Stark said.
Blount, Sonneville, Weber and Neumeister agreed that their success came from showing up at Fort Drum four days early and working together to master the tasks.
The session run by the 10th Mountain Division allocated two weeks for the skill badge evaluation. During the first week, Sept. 20-26, Soldiers reviewed the skills and mastered them with hands-on training. The testing phase came Sept. 27-Oct. 1.
"Once we got there and we saw what it was all about and how challenging it was, it was pretty clear we were going to succeed or fail as a group," said Blount, a full-time human resource specialist.
Blount said he has helped plan Best Warrior competitions, so he figured he could use his experience and help the younger Soldiers.
"We wanted to make sure we didn't leave anybody behind," Blount said. "We went at it as a team."
"We would stand there and test each other while we were getting ready to go through the lanes," Sonneville said.
"Having other people there to talk it through and correct me if I am wrong or out of sequence was important," Neumeister said. "If I didn't have them with me, it would be a different story."
For Blount, the toughest part of the two weeks was "maintaining a calm and collected outward appearance as a leader" for the other Soldiers and "managing the internal stress and anxiety as a participant."
"With the 30-plus tasks that you have to perform near flawlessly, it can get extremely stressful and overwhelming," Blount said.
Tasks included weapons, medical and patrol, which involved map reading, transmitting a spot report and emplacing a Claymore mine.
Sonneville, a cavalry scout and team leader in the 2nd Squadron, 101st Cavalry's Alpha Troop, said he was fairly comfortable with the 10 weapon tasks. But it was still "kind of overwhelming" to work through tasks involving the Mk 19 grenade launcher, the M2 .50-caliber machine gun and the M249 Squad Automatic Weapon without making a mistake, he said.
They also had to learn to break down the new M17 Sig Sauer pistol instead of the Beretta M9 pistol used by the New York Army National Guard because that is the pistol issued to 10th Mountain Division Soldiers.
Sonneville said his training as a scout stood him in good stead when it came to the patrol tasks. His unit spends a lot of time training on range estimation and call for fire, he explained.
Weber, a part-time college student and full-time security guard, said he also found the weapons lane the most challenging. He got interested in tackling the badge after talking to Sonneville.
"Because it is a new badge, and not many people have it, it was something I wanted to go for," Weber said. "Just having the word 'expert' attached to you is awesome. And at the very least, if I failed, I know I would have learned a lot of stuff I could bring back to my unit."
A signals intelligence analyst, Neumeister said he signed up for the ESB competition when his chance to go to Air Assault School fell through.
The ESB competition was Neumeister's last official act with the New York Army Guard.
Neumeister said earning the ESB has been a real confidence booster as he moves into a full-time job with the Colorado Army National Guard's 19th Special Forces Group as a full-time intelligence analyst.